By Tunji Olaopa
I need to be clear from the beginning what this essay intends. It is a narrative of celebration of someone who has a unique relationship with Nigeria, and from a perspective that is often not recognised even in his own profession. I am talking of Odia Ofeimun the poet of Nigeria. To place this narrative in perspective, I need begin necessarily from a personal angle that details my relationship of envious longing that is devoid of any negativity. Ofeimun is my big brother or if you like my egbon, and so I am permitted to envy him. He has those outstanding sterling qualities that I desire, so I am permitted to covet them. But this is not just some vain covetousness my Bible warned me about; there is a significant context for it.
There are two dimensions to my envious adulation of Odia Ofeimun. The first occurred in 1987. Shortly after I had commenced my doctoral programme at the department of Political Science, University of Ibadan, one of my esteemed teachers and mentor, Professor Femi Otubanjo, invited me to an interview for a job as a research assistant. It was later that I got the startling understanding that the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was looking for a replacement for his erstwhile personal political secretary, the inimitable Odia Ofeimun.
I got the job but papa Awolowo passed on before I could take on the challenge of serving the sage though I managed with a word from the late Prof. Ojetunji Aboyade to have a pre-resumption seminar session with him before exit. Odia Ofeimun was at the height of his creativity when I replaced him, but with hindsight now, I just wonder what sort of replacement I could have been then. So, who wouldnt become envious, or even annoyed, that you better occupied a position you werent given the opportunity to try out (even if trying it out would have showcased ones inadequacy)? Of course I am envious: Odia occupied a position I would have given everything to take; and he has some significant qualities that would have ensured that I survived what I am certain would have been the rigorous requirements of Chief Awolowo. Unfortunately, I doubt if I had those qualities then, or even now.
Odias book exhibition is the second reason for envyhow I wish I have the books Odia has! How I wish I could collect them all in their rich diversity and deep in their contents. I am a bibliophile, and I collect them as fast as I can, but it is clear to me that I have met more than my match in this person who has made it his lifelong pursuit to make his entire house one huge library. Martin Farquhar Tupper, the British writer, once noted that A good book is the best of friends, the same today and for ever. Odia definitely understands this better than I do. When I gave upon the greys on his head and his beards, they seem to inform about the experiences which both life and books have taken him through. That is something to be coveted!
Odia Ofeimun is a rebellious nationalist who comes to the nationalist struggle for the soul of Nigeria from a unique perspectivepoetry. Poetry is not a likeable genre, even for the literary profession. After all, if Brian Patten, the British poet, is to be believed, poetry is the monster hiding in a childs dark room; it is the scar on a beautiful persons face. Who wants to publish a book of poetry when some other genres guarantee commercial success? And who reads a book of poetry about Nigeria when there are countless political essays and commentaries that we consider can do the job better? But Odia cannot be subdued; he combines the voluptuous sublimity and leanness of poetry with the critical directness of the political essay. These two become the deadly weapon that Ofeimun wields against thoseleaders, politicians and even poetswho manipulate the society for their own selfish purposes. For him, the poet cannot lie; and neither can the politicians or anyone else who aspires to leadership.
Odia Ofeimun writes politically charged poems. Of course, this character flows from his belief that a poet is necessarily a citizen; it is vain to attempt divorcing the two roles from each other. But I suspect that rather than being solely hinged to the political, Odia would rather align with Matthew Arnold understanding of poetry as a criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such a criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty. I consider it a rather huge achievement to be able to enable a beautiful piece of poetry carry the burden of an engaged sensibility. Odia Ofeimun is such a poet. Poetry is a responsibility that goes beyond the mere architecture of words. W. B. Yeats, the Irish poet, captures this responsibility:
A line will take us hours maybe; Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Odia has carried Nigeria in the unfolding bowel of poetry for long. Odias muse must surely be a militant when confronted with the gross dysfunction that the Nigerian predicament presents. This predicament excites different reaction from all of us. For most people, the most immediate of these reactions is that of cynicism, the terrible pessimistic refusal to see anything good coming out of Nigeria. For some others, it is abject resignation to fate. The trajectory of my own lifepersonal and professionalhas all the ingredients to lead me to profound pessimism. On the contrary, I chose optimism at the personal and institutional levels. And this is an optimism that strives actively to unfold dynamics of reforms and possibilities by which Nigeria can be reformulated.
One recurrent methodological index of my optimism is the critical celebration of national heroes as people, from one generation to another, whose fate have been entwined with Nigerias, either by choice or by circumstance. There is no nation that does not need the cantankerous queries and effusive energies of the hero who is always at war with the nation because s/he wants that nation to transcend itself and its achievement. And Nigeria has many of these, dead or aliveClaude Ake, Billy Dudley, Obafemi Awolowo, Olusegun Obasanjo, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Tai Solarin, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Christopher Kolade, Gani Fawehinmi, Bala Usman, Bolanle Awe, and the younger upcoming role models Chimamanda Adiche, Bukola Elemide Asa, the list is endless.
In a forthcoming book that ties all these heroes to the project of national integration and development in Nigeria, I had no difficulty in inviting Odia Ofeimun to write the foreword. That choice is inevitable: He shared the same heroic characteristics with all those I have celebrated. In his own wordsin the foreword to my upcoming bookhe said he is an irredeemable partisan on the side of the Nigerian Project involved in an almost occult pursuit of Nigeria the Beautiful.
Odia wields the cudgel of performance poetic that narrates the different dynamics of the Nigerian experience. In the poem National Cakes, Odia contrasts between the concepts of vultures and cakes to project a national metaphor that speaks to both the leadership and the followership:
Vultures dont bake their national cakes
They just swoop on the ripe carcass
of maybe, human cattle
We too, hate to be bakers
And so, we despoil the sunrise we seek
His poetry and his essays speak with thunderous loudness that fears no controversies, and which no government can ever hope to escape. Odia Ofeimun is not just a political poet; I am sure he prefers being known as a revolutionary one; a true poet who, according to Wilfred Own, the British poet, must be truthful. He is a poet whose poetry oscillates between the beautiful and the severe. He drags our imagination about Nigeria into the very depth of the imaginable. I salute you my egbon!
*Dr. Olaopa is Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Communication Technology in Abuja.
He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com